It took a little more than the 30 days of waiting for the EPA to catalogue and respond to public concerns over placing Jackson’s sewer system under the control of Ted Henifin, the Interim Third Party Manager (ITPM) of Jackson’s Water System since Nov. 30, 2022. And on Saturday, September 30, Henifin was officially assigned the same role of ITPM for Jackson’s sewer system.
Having formed the corporation JXN Water shortly after assuming the office of water systems manager, Henifin commands a relatively small staff to manage contracts, finances, and communications. The major work has been contracted out to a large company like Jacobs Solutions for the operation and management of the city’s two water plants, and to smaller companies that specialize in pipeline repair and maintenance, and other services. Billing, water meter installation, and management are also a part of the office routine at JXN Water.
Representatives of the EPA, DOJ, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality held three public sessions on August 21-22 – one in Jackson and two on the Tougaloo College campus – allowing for all public statements or criticism of the Stipulated Order regarding the sewer system.
The EPA reports that of the 666 public inputs made through in-person accounts, via letter or the internet, 633 – or 95 percent – favored turning the sewer system over to Henifin, who was rated by the EPA as one of the nation’s top authorities on water systems management. Fewer than five percent of the public looked upon Henifin with disfavor. With such a favorability rating, the Stipulated Order for Jackson’s sewer system, that had been on hold since July 27, was brought back into play and needed only a few procedural steps to make it official.
Once again the three parties to the agreement – the federal government, represented by the EPA and the Department of Justice, the state of Mississippi represented by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and the City of Jackson represented by City Attorney Catoria Martin signed on and the deal was confirmed by Judge Wingate, effective Saturday, September 30, 2023.
By one account, Judge Henry Wingate signed a Stipulated Order on October 2, 2023, that places the control of Jackson’s sewer system under JXN Water, a third-party water manager. But the language in the order designates September 30, 2023, as the effective date of the order The order is set to last for four years and requires JXN Water to submit quarterly reports and hold public meetings within 30 days of each report. A list of 11 priority projects were designated in the July 27 original version of the Stipulated Order. A full listing of the 215 raw sewage overflow problems to be repaired was included in the final order.
The document released last Saturday and its appendices “constitute the final, complete and exclusive agreement” among the three signatories, the order declares. All prior agreements, oral or written, are superseded by the new order.
The Poor People’s Campaign and the People’s Advocacy Institute were among the five percent opposed to the agreement. They were seeking to join in the lawsuit against the city of Jackson to legitimize their voice in the case.
The two organizations represent a coalition of over 30 community activist groups that have long called for “transparency” in the federal actions taken in Jackson and for a role in the decision-making process vis-à-vis the water and sewer issues.
Two of the main complaints from the community is that of “brown water” being piped into some homes and the low-pressure of water coming from the faucets inside some of the homes, a familiar indication among Jacksonians that something’s wrong with the system.
Henifin and his staff have given assurances since June that the city’s drinking water meets EPA clean water standards and the state agencies in most cases. Yet, the doubts and disputes remain with some community observers.
“We could no longer sit by idly as government agencies allow residents to be told that it’s okay to drink unclean water,” said Danyelle Holmes, a National Justice Organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign and the Repairers of the Breach. “We are being told that brown drinking water, black drinking water is safe to consume. We feel like our lives are on the chopping block here in the city of Jackson.”
Language in the Stipulated Order of September 30 says the concerned citizens’ groups are represented by the Mayor and City Council and that the complaints are not of such a scope as to warrant the inclusion of another level of direction.
“The Stipulated Order was negotiated with the City and approved by the mayor and city council,” the EPA responded. “By entering into this Order, the elected officials of the City have determined that the Order, including the role specified for the City, represents the best path forward for the Sewer System.
“The comments have not presented evidence that further involvement or decision-making by elected officials/the City or the direct involvement or decision-making by citizens about the Sewer System would enhance the ITPM’s efforts. Thus, the United States declines to amend the Stipulated Order to address the authority and oversight of the ITPM as requested by the comments, except as to the ITPM’s responsibility and reporting for financial accounts and spending,” the EPA said.
Additional layers of input or interference would inhibit the ITPM’s progress and would divert time and resources away from the ITPM’s operation and management of the sewer system in a sustainable manner, the EPA statement said.
Henifin and his designated agents are recognized as officers of the court and have protection against lawsuits and many other legal measures that might apply under normal circumstances. The ITPM’s quarterly status reports, nevertheless, must include, “an accounting of the expenditures from, additions to, and remaining balance of the ITPM Professional Sewer Budget.” And in the month of January, the ITPM must provide “an audited financial statement of the ITPM Professional Sewer Account, Sewer Operations and Management Account, and Sewer Capital Improvements Account for the City’s previous fiscal year.
Henifin, who was already at work on some of the 11 Priority Sewer Problems during the 30-day public input session, says he is prepared to get to work immediately on repairing the sewer problems that include over 200 overflows of raw sewage scattered throughout the city.
“Having raw sewage flow down the streets of Jackson is unacceptable.” Henifin said. “JXN Water is aggressively at work right now to fix sewer overflows and restore sanitary sewer operations. There are about 215 overflows right now across the city and they’re in neighborhoods where people live close by. You got businesses, cars driving through, people trying to walk their dogs. They don’t want to walk near this. It causes them to have to take alternate routes. It’s just a mess, and we’re going to get at it right away.”
To prevent confusion between the two distinct stipulated orders, the court issued the following information near the end of the Sewer Stipulated Order:
“Comments solely regarding the drinking water system or the City’s stormwater management program are unrelated to the Stipulated Order at issue (i.e., the sewer system). To the extent that the comments complained about the drinking water system, the United States has forwarded these comments to Mr. Henifin, as the ITPM of the drinking water system, to review and address as he considers appropriate.”
The court sought to make it clear that Henifin would be wearing two distinct hats, one as water systems manager, the other as sewage system manager. He is expected to handle each problem in the appropriate venue.